Before I start this story, let me tell you that when I began “Ten Years Later” and “Chitin’ Circuit” I wanted them to be art projects. I didn’t want to do any heavy reporting or writing. I’m an okay reporter. I follow the story. I’m an okay writer. Sometimes. But, I really just wanted to photograph subjects that made a point. I wanted them to be art statements. Apparently, I can’t just do that. Apparently, my curiosity always gets the better of me.
Here’s the story of this place. Of these pictures.
It’s not pretty.
In fact, I believe it actually affected me when I returned home after the floodwaters of Katrina receded. Not in a terrible way. I wasn’t there long enough after the storm. But, it sure may have hurt my old neighborhood. But, I can’t prove that.
These pictures were made at three very nearby locations. Press Plaza. What was left of the Desire Housing projects and an abandoned field just up river from the first two, but on the same general plot of land. The furthest corner of the 9th Ward. Out near the Industrial Canal.
This is long. It is historical. Hang in there with me, please.
In 1909, New Orleans needed a place to dump its garbage. Its industrial waste. Its junk. It chose this big field way out in the 9th Ward. It was swampy and at the time very few people lived anywhere near there. It abutted the Industrial Canal. People, businesses and manufacturers started dumping stuff there. By the mid-1920s, the land was so filled with all sorts of industrial waste that it caught fire and burned for months. It became known as Dante’s Inferno. In 1949, the Federal Government (HUD) approved the construction of what became the Desire Street Housing Projects on the same general piece of land. A section of the dump/landfill was closed in 1952. The land was simply plowed over. The housing projects were built on top of it. No sub-flooring was used. The house flooring was simply laid over the dirt. No pilings. No foundation. Just dirt. This caused two major problems. Chemical waste seeped into the homes. And, the homes sank into what was a toxic stew of chemical waste and natural swamps. The construction was crooked in more ways than one. By spring of 1956, HUD, declared these brand new buildings to be uninhabitable. By fall of 1956, people were moving in because they had nowhere else to go. To make matters worse, private developers added townhouses and single family dwellings in the late 1960s through the 1990s to the land adjacent to the Desire Housing Project. By 1970, the Desire Projects had become the most violent neighborhood in the entire country. Not just in New Orleans. Not just in Louisiana. But, the entire United States. In 1970 the Black Panthers and the NOPD, augmented by parish sheriffs, had a major gun battle there. Twice. The law eventually won when they rolled in a tank, even after the residents surrounded the buildings in which the Panthers lived in order to protect them. The Panthers protected them so they returned the favor. Bad? Huh?
But it gets much worse.
Remember Dante’s Inferno? It was reopened after Hurricane Betsy in 1966 because the land was needed to dump hurricane damaged stuff. It was quickly closed again.
You knew this was coming.
In 1994, the Federal Government declared the whole tract of land a Superfund Cleanup Site. The Desire Housing Projects were eventually torn down. The land was supposedly remediated. But, guess what? The government got cheap again. The soil was plowed about six inches deep and new soil added on top. That should do it. Right?
Along came Hurricane Katrina which actually struck backwards from the lake side, rather than the river or gulf side. All of this land was under 15 feet of water, including land which had never been remediated. When the water started to recede, guess what started bubbling up? You guessed it. Toxic sludge. Everywhere. Not just where the former Desire Projects were located. But, even where the townhouses and single family homes were built. The town houses are as you see them in the middle photograph. Abandoned, tagged but not torn down. The single family homes have been rebuilt. Well, some of them. The people who live there today are living on a time bomb. They have cemented and paved over everything. But, they cannot dig on their land. No swimming pools. No gardens that require some kind of underground piping. If they dig, the toxins may come back up. Why did they rebuild there? No place else to go with their “Road Home” money.
And, the top picture?
It gets better when I start researching. It always does. Initially, I had no idea how to research that picture. I didn’t know what I was looking at until the trail lead me to Superfund Sites in Louisiana. That’s part of the land known as Dante’s Inferno. Rather than do anything at all to the land, the Feds just fenced it off. If you look at that parcel of land using Google Maps satellite imagery, you can see winding trails and a small road. All fenced off. I imagine any big trash was removed. But, that’s about it.
I figured that somebody didn’t want anybody getting on the land when I took the pictures. That’s heavy gauge concertina wire on top of the fence. The kind of wire used on the perimeter of military bases or prisons. I just didn’t realize that it is essentially condemned Federal land.
So here we are ten years after Katrina. Not much has really been done out in the farthest reaches of the 9th Ward. Likely, it never will be. The rich keep getting richer. The poor just keep getting old.
Me? How did this affect me? I lived in the 7th ward. How did something this far out affect me?
When I finally returned home to see what was left of my house and neighborhood, I found a couple of things. My outbuildings, with the exception of some of the oldest brick walls were totally destroyed. One of the out buildings held my old wet darkroom gear. I had a whole bunch of stainless steel film developing tanks. Those of you who came to photography in the pre-digital world and who developed your own film will know what I am talking about. They are designed to have chemicals in them. Admittedly, photo chemicals are not nasty industrial chemicals. But, when I looked at them, they were corroded to the point that holes were eaten into them. Hmmm… They told us that water from The Industrial Canal — what flooded my neighborhood — was not toxic. Really?
What ate into my film cans if the water wasn’t normally toxic?
Now that I understand more about Dante’s Inferno, my theory is simple. The toxic waste that caused that land to be declared a Superfund Site broke loose during the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina and flowed through to my side of New Orleans. Remember, 80% of the city was underwater. The water came from different sources. My neighborhood’s Flood water just happened to come from the broken Industrial Canal. It didn’t last long, but it was there.
What is in that toxic waste?
Benzopyrene. Lead. Oil. Other heavy chemicals. The first two are known to be in that abandoned and condemned land. As much as 1000 times the highest level that a human body can tolerate is still not treated. It’s just there. The toxic mix is a super carcinogen.
Happy ten-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.